Wildlife in Winter

Grizzly Bear, Alaska

As the northern hemisphere experiences the winter solstice, let’s take a look at how various wildlife species adapt to this season. It’s a fascinating picture, and each animal has a different story.

 

Some animals hibernate, some go into a more wakeful sleep called torpor, some barely lose a wink, and others migrate. For many creatures, the body changes.

 

Classic hibernators, like bears, eat large amounts of food in autumn to store fat for survival. They sleep all or part of the winter, and exist primarily on their fat stores. There is a slow-down of heart and respiration rate, and a lowering of the body temperature.

 

But few animal species have such a defined program–it varies by region, temperature, elevation, and other factors. And truth be told, even bears differ widely in their hibernating tactics.

 

Most big mammals have enough bulk that they do not hibernate. Bison, for example, simply grow a heavier coat to withstand freezing temperatures.

 

Shedding bison in back, Yellowstone NP

 

Bison in Lamar Valley on a snowy day, Yellowstone

 

Smaller mammals, however, are more inclined to hibernate because little bodies have a high surface-area-to-volume ratio; i.e. it takes more energy for a small animal to stay warm. Many small mammals burrow into the ground to wait out the foodless winter.

 

Marmot, Mt. Rainier, Washington

 

Marmots (aka groundhogs) build their fat storage and spend half their lives in hibernation. Prairie dogs, on the other hand, periodically come out of the burrow to munch on grass and then go back to sleep.

 

Prairie Dog at burrow, Colorado

 

Every species has a different physiological system for adapting to the food loss of winter.

 

Reptiles are cold-blooded and depend on the sunshine for metabolic activity.

 

Skink, California

 

In winter most reptiles in cold regions find a deep crack or rock cave and sleep through the months of sunless chill. They’re so inactive they don’t eat…don’t need to eat.

 

If you pick up a lizard who is essentially dormant, they only open their eyes in terror; but they do not move because they can’t.

 

Northern Alligator Lizard, California

 

Many species group together for warmth. They huddle while they sleep. That’s how we can sometimes come across a hole filled with snakes, or large colonies of bats.

 

Eastern Long-eared Bats, Australia

 

Some snakes and amphibians hibernate underneath water in locations where water doesn’t freeze. Certain snake species use their skin as a lung to extract oxygen from the water.

 

Even though toads and frogs stay quiet and resting most of the winter where I live, on a fluky mild winter day I will hear a toad call out from its burrow.

 

Western Toad in burrow, California

 

Insects transform into larvae, nymphs, eggs, or pupae forms to weather the winter. Others, like the monarch butterfly, migrate to warmer places.

 

Anise Swallowtail Chrysalis or Pupa

 

There is endless variation not only in species, but in location too. Here in northern California where the winter is mild, hovering close to freezing for only a month or two, I often discover winter wildlife anomalies.

 

I’ve read that praying mantis adults, for example, hide their eggs from predators for the winter and then die off. In spring the new insect emerges from the egg and starts the life cycle.

 

Not where I live. This photo of a loggerhead shrike in the California winter rain about to eat an adult praying mantis proves otherwise.

 

Loggerhead Shrike preying on a praying mantis, California in January

 

If winter temperatures do not fluctuate drastically, or are relatively mild, many insects find shelter and food in leaf litter, tree holes, under logs, or in soil or plant galls.

 

And don’t get me started on what the birds do. Some stay put if they live in a temperate zone, others migrate, and still others tough it out in cold regions. There is only one bird known to hibernate, the common poorwill. 

 

Some birds and small mammals in arctic regions turn white in the frigid months to camouflage with snow. Their bodies adapt in numerous ways. Below are the summer and winter versions of the willow ptarmigan (bird) and snowshoe hare.

 

Willow ptarmigan, Alaska in August

 

Willow Ptarmigan Nonbreeding adult

Willow ptarmigan in winter plumage. Photo by John and Ivy Gibbons.

Snowshoe Hare in August, Alaska

 

Snowshoe Hare, Shirleys Bay.jpg

Snowshoe Hare in winter. Photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson.

 

Whatever the season, nature not only has its curious, changing ways, but also unpredictability…just enough to keep the mystery and beauty alive.

 

Happy Solstice, Happy Holidays, dear reader.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted.

Mammalian tourists in winter

 

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Avenue of the Giants

Humboldt Redwoods State Park

There is a short stretch of road weaving through Humboldt Redwoods State Park in northern California called Avenue of the Giants. Here you can experience the largest contiguous old-growth redwood forest in the world.

 

Avenue of the Giants Wikipedia

Humboldt Redwoods State Park

 

It is on this 31-mile (51 km) section, State Route 254, where time stands still. Humans and their twenty-first century vehicles are dwarfed by 300-foot trees. And cell phones and voices are silenced by the towering behemoths that speak volumes…without words.

Athena with one redwood

 

Humboldt Redwoods State Park

Located near Garberville, California, it is approximately 200 miles (320 km) north of San Francisco, easily accessed via Highway 101.

 

Found only in coastal California and the southern Oregon coast, the old-growth redwood forests thrive in a temperate coniferous ecoregion.

 

As the tallest and one of the most massive tree species on Earth, Sequoia sempervirons live an average of 800 to 1,500 years; some have been documented at 2,000 years old. (The Coastal redwood, discussed here, is a different species than the Sierra redwood, Sequoia giganteum.)

 

Coastal redwoods are reliant on the moisture of the fog, usually growing a mile or two from the Pacific Ocean, and never more than 50 miles from it.

 

The strip of today’s existing old-growth redwoods extends north along the coast from the Big Sur area south of San Francisco to the southwestern corner of Oregon.

 

As recent as 1850 there were two million acres (8,100 km2) of redwood trees on California’s coast. Then with the discovery of gold came a burgeoning population, building needs, and unrestricted redwood logging.

 

Today there are 110,000 acres of remaining old-growth redwood forests.

 

Fortunately conservationists began efforts in the 1920s to protect this unique and ancient tree. More information: Save the Redwoods League.

 

Avenue of the Giants parallels the main highway, and offers a serene drive for people of all ages. In addition to cruising past the tall trees, there are many interesting massive redwoods that have toppled or succumbed to lightning. Giant rootballs as big as a car, mossy old limbs, trees hollowed out by natural decay over the centuries.

 

Founders Tree

Founders Tree, 1,400 years old, Avenue of the Giants

 

Many times I have witnessed a person going right up to a redwood and instinctively embracing it, leaning their whole body against it. I’ve done it plenty of times.

 

There are some old trees you can drive through and other touristy attractions (see the end), but my favorite activity  is hiking the forest. The presence of these trees and their long-lived existence remind me of the perspective of life, its cycles, and all of Earth’s creatures.

 

Jet pointing out the year of her birth…so young in comparison

Redwood rings tagged with dates. Fourth one from R is when the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620. First tag near center is the year 1000.

 

There is something inherently relaxed and slow about the old redwoods.

 

With the canopy hundreds of feet in the air, the understory is quiet, accompanied by occasional thrushes or songbirds hopping on the ground…nothing as frenetic as, say, a tropical rainforest.

 

Even the ground is soft and hushed. Each step you take on the reddish-orange duff is cushioned by decades of fallen needles.

 

Ferns and shamrock-shaped sorrel comprise the understory, and in summer there are occasional native rhododendrons.

 

Great website with more information about hiking California’s old-growth redwoods: redwoodhikes.com.

 

There is a renewal that we find when we visit the redwoods, as if we are being embraced by hundred-year-old ancestors sharing the wisdom of the centuries.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

For one dollar you can visit this one-log redwood house in Garberville; created in 1946 from a 2,100-year-old tree that fell from natural causes.

 

One-Log House interior

 

Bountiful Nature in Seward, Alaska

Seward Harbor

Seward is a small port town on the southern coast of Alaska, tucked in a harbor on the Kenai Peninsula. Surrounded by glacial water and snow-capped mountains, it is a small town with a big presence and abundant beauty.

 

Seward Wikipedia

 

This town is the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park. Situated on Resurrection Bay in the Gulf of Alaska, it offers many ways to explore the Harding Icefield and its nearly 40 glaciers that dominate this area.

 

We took a half-day boat trip out of Seward and had the thrill of seeing a glacier from the boat. Occasionally a huge mass of blue glacial ice broke off (“calved”) and tumbled into the frigid waters below.

 

There are only four remaining icefields in the U.S., the Harding Icefield in Seward is one, and covers 300 square miles (777 km2).

 

Gulf of Alaska and Glacier

 

Seward Highway Vista

 

There are 190 different species of birds here, and a plethora of land and sea mammals.

 

Moose

 

In addition, the Gulf of Alaska waters are teeming with sea lions, sea otters, humpback whales, and more. We were there in the month of August, and saw thousands of wild sea mammals and migrating birds.

 

Sea Otter, Gulf of Alaska

 

There in Resurrection Bay sea lions bulk up on fish, otters gorge on shellfish, migrating birds reproduce over the summer. We witnessed dozens of bald eagles perched atop boat masts in the Seward marina, strategizing their next fresh catch.

 

Bald Eagle, Seward Marina

 

We never tired of spotting numerous humpback whales and other marine mammals and seabirds.

 

Humpback Whale Fluke

 

Common Murres

 

Common Murres nesting, Alaska

 

Steller Sea Lions, Gulf of Alaska

 

Located only 120 miles (193 km) from Anchorage, Seward can be reached by many different modes of transport. We drove the 2.5 hour trip along the Seward Highway, a National Scenic Highway. Along this highway with breathtaking vistas, we saw both moose and fishermen up to their hips in the water.

 

Kenai Peninsula, Alaska, Moose

 

 

Fishermen

 

Sea islands, Gulf of Alaska

 

As inhabitants of planet Earth, we are all so lucky to have the natural wonders of Alaska and Seward.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander, except the photo below.

How the historic Iditarod Dog Sled Race is connected to Seward. 

 

Photo by Derek and Julie Ramsey. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

They Run Like the Wind…Cheetah

Cheetah

There are many glorious sights on the Serengeti, but nothing is as exhilarating as watching a cheetah in pursuit of its prey.

 

The cheetah’s body is built for aerodynamic speed:  light bones, long, thin legs, short neck, enlarged heart, lungs, and nostrils, and more.  Clocked as the fastest land animal, they can reach speeds of up to 70 miles per hour (112 kph). They can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in three seconds.

 

Acinonyx jubatus pursue many different kinds of prey, depending on where they live. The cheetahs featured here are residents of the Serengeti, and gazelles are their prey of choice.

Cheetah with Thomson’s Gazelle

 

Cheetah on kopje (boulder)

 

Wikipedia Cheetah

 

Cheetahs hunting, Serengeti

In hunting, cheetah use their sense of vision rather than smell. They possess a  concentrated band of nerve cells in the center of their eyes, enhancing the visual sharpness, like binoculars. Of all the felids, this visual band is the most concentrated and efficient in the cheetah.

 

Cheetah

 

The cat begins stalking within 330 to 980 feet (100-300m) of prey. They prefer some kind of earthly cover–trees or tall grass–giving them a chance to stay hidden and  unseen. If there is no cover, they slowly, patiently, and methodically inch closer. Their camouflage in the tall, golden grass is an asset.

 

When the prey is within reach, the cheetah starts galloping. If the herd has not yet become aware, the cheetah has won an extra moment.

 

Within seconds, the herd of gazelles bolts and scatters. At this point the cheetah sprints, never faltering, with an individual in its crosshairs.

 

Cheetah jaws on gazelle neck

 

You might think at this point, that the gazelle is going to lose, because the cheetah’s extraordinary swiftness and prowess are unmatchable.

 

With that lanky, light body stretched out completely, and limbs of pure muscle, the cheetah achieves moments of being airborne. Ears pressed back, face set in dogged determination…they run like the wind.

 

But this bodily expenditure is of great cost to a cheetah, and can only be achieved in short bursts.

 

A gazelle may not have the speed of a cheetah, but they are a swift and nimble creature. The gazelle being chased can turn sharply, running in a zig-zag line…something the cat cannot do at high speed.

 

If the gazelle can continue to run this jagged path for about a minute, the cat runs out of steam, slows down, and the chase is aborted.

 

Click here for a National Geographic slow motion video — Cheetah running at top speed

 

While I love watching the cheetah fly across the landscape in deadly pursuit, I must confess I am always relieved when the gazelle escapes.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander. All in Tanzania.

Cheetah

 

 

Cuzco, Peru

Cuzco, Peru. Photo by Bill Page

One of my favorite cities, Cuzco is located in southeastern Peru in the towering Andes mountains of South America. Founded in 1100 in a fertile valley, this city rests at an elevation of 11,152 feet (3,400 m). It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 

The two most notable human influences of Cuzco (also spelled Cusco) are the Inca civilization, occupying Cuzco from the 13th to the 16th Centuries; and the Spanish culture which took over in 1532.  Many native cultures occupied Cuzco before the Inca, less is known.

 

The beauty of Cuzco today is the combined cultures of the past.

Chinchero, Peru in Cuzco region

 

Cuzco Peru musicians

 

Another major influence of the region are the colossal Andes mountains. The longest mountain range in the world, and the highest outside of Asia, the mountains loom large in every aspect of Cuzco…as they have for tens of millions of years.

 

Isolated by the mountains, the people of this area have perpetuated skills and crafts over the centuries. Textiles, agriculture, and an array of ancient techniques that were practiced centuries ago still flourish today. Flora and fauna are also unique to the high altitudes.

 

Alpaca Wool Weaving. Photo by Bill Page

 

Walking Stick, Pisac, Peru

 

During the Inca civilization, communities were masterfully constructed. They built exquisite walls of granite and limestone, designed to utilize the commanding topography. Temples, roadways, domiciles, and aqueducts dominated the land.

 

Inca Wall in Chinchero Peru

 

When the Spanish conquered the area in 1532, they built their structures over the Inca city and its magnificent walls. Colonial cathedrals and other Spanish architecture can be seen today in Cuzco, most prominently in the center of town at the Plaza de Armas.

 

Plaza de Armas, Cuzco. Photo by Bill Page

 

Fortunately, the Inca structures were not lost. In fact, my favorite part of the area are the Inca ruins.

 

Today, the ruins of these walls can be found throughout the Cuzco region. They are not only in the city, but in surrounding towns; the most famous complex being Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu. Photo by Bill Page

 

Links of interest:

Cuzco History–World Heritage Center

Inca Architecture–Wikipedia

Jet Posts: Machu Picchu and Ollantaytambo

Weavers in Cuzco

Cuzco woman

 

Cuzco

 

With the vast array of incredible stone masonry from the Inca, as well as colonial architecture that still stands, it is easy to wander around in Cuzco and its mountaintops imagining life as it was in earlier centuries.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

Wandering alpacas at our hotel, Ollantaytambo

 

Jet with the woman who crafted her just-purchased alpaca sweater

 

California On Fire Again

Gulls and Sailboat, San Francisco Bay, California

Last week, as most people are aware, there were more firestorms in California, and they continue to burn. We’ll look at scenes of California on better days in the past, as I tell you about life here this week.

 

Bottom line: I am safe. The local air quality is registered as “unhealthy,” due to smoke. But other than that, I am fine. Each fire is over a hundred miles away.

 

There has been much news coverage, I don’t need to repeat the horrors. But for people who want information, here are some links.

  • Northern California “Camp Fire,” 45% contained. Camp Fire 2018 Wikipedia.  63 people found dead, over 600 still missing.
  • Southern California “Woolsey Fire,” 69% contained.
  • CalFire Map— the website many Californians consult frequently for updates on containment, evacuation centers, road closures, etc.

Sierra Nevada Mountains, California

 

California Quail, California’s state bird

 

Last fall I was evacuated during the Wine Country fires, our property sustained substantial damage, and I couldn’t move back home for a year. This week, as we struggled with high winds and foul air, and the terrorizing memories of last year, I took time out to remind myself why I live in California; thus, these photos.

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California

 

The smoky fire-choked air is sometimes blue or lavender, sometimes gray, sometimes as white as milk. It’s eerie, ghostly.

 

There’s less oxygen in the air, many of us get headaches. It’s a lot like altitude sickness, I discovered…same principle, oxygen deprivation. The headaches force us to slow down. Not such a bad thing sometimes.

 

Cows, Wildflowers, Carrizo Plains, CA

 

Friends and neighbors, acquaintances…we talk about air purifiers and respirator masks, and the need for more underground electrical wiring. We hang our respirator masks on the front door key rack or the steering column in the car. If we have extras, we hand them out to someone who’s using their coat collar to cover up their nostrils.

 

Elephant Seals, California coast

 

Two days this week the local schools were closed. There is a website map they consult, purpleair.com, to see if the Air Quality Index is safe; this number determines if school is open or closed. If the school is open but it’s still very smoky, kids eat and play inside.

 

The sunsets and sunrises are more colorful this week, lots more hot pinks, reds and oranges. It has to do with excessive particles blocking out some colors and highlighting reds and oranges. If the winds change and it gets smoky again, then the haze takes over.

 

San Francisco skyline, Sunrise after the 2017 fires

 

We go on with our headachy days and sleepless nights, craving big breaths of fresh air and the days when we can go back to our outdoor exercise routines.

 

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California

 

Big Sur, California

Western Gull, Bodega Bay, California

 

These days are dark as we think about the people who burned alive in their cars or homes as they tried to escape; we have gratitude for the firefighters and responders, so many heroes; try to have more patience for one another.

 

And we all wait for rain. Yes, we say to ourselves, that’s what we need.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

McWay Falls, Big Sur, California

 

California Poppy, state flower

 

American Bison

Bison Bull, Yellowstone NP, WY, USA

The largest surviving terrestrial animal in North America, American bison still roam the prairies of this continent.

 

It is estimated there were once 20-30 million wild bison in North America. Habitat loss and unregulated hunting brought the numbers down to 1,091 individuals by 1889. Today in North America, after over a century of regulation and protection, there are approximately 500,000.

 

The herd of which many of us are familiar are the Yellowstone bison, seen in these photos. They total approximately 5,000 individuals; and are the only free-range bison population in the U.S. who ancestrally date back to prehistoric times.

 

Bison in Lamar Vly, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

 

Bison, Hayden Valley, Yellowstone River, Yellowstone NP

 

It is extraordinary that any bison exist today after the relentless slaughter in the 1800s.

 

There is a lot of information about the near-extinction of this mammal, and the heroic recovery; many sub-species, different herds in the U.S., and in-depth research about the American bison.

 

Wikipedia Bison gives a good overview.

 

Yellowstone Bison from the National Park Service offers a thorough look at the current herds in this park, including a 2:52 minute video of a just-born bison calf.

 

Bison herd, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone NP

 

American bison are creatures of the prairies. Nomadic grazers who travel in herds, they eat grass, weeds, and other plants. Herbivores with an average weight of 1,000-2,000 pounds (453- 907 kg), you can imagine how much grass it takes to satisfy a bison’s belly. They spend 9-11 hours a day eating.

 

When we were in Yellowstone in September, 2014, some of the bison’s coats were shaggy. Their bodies were preparing for the brutal Wyoming winter months ahead. They have two coats: a heavy one for winter, a lighter one for summer.

Shedding bison in back, Yellowstone NP

Also in winter, the bison come down out of the higher elevations to the valleys, where they can generally find more food. See diagram at end.

 

I like this winter note: the bison’s humpback design, with large spaces between certain vertebrae, allows them to use their head as a snowplow. Swinging their head from side to side, sweeping away the snow, they can reach the grass even in the coldest seasons.

Skeleton of adult male American bison. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

Bison crossing road

All traffic stops in Yellowstone for the bison.

 

Sometimes they meander so close to the car that you can hear them breathing. I found it so intimate, hearing the deep, labored breath of this behemoth.

 

A huge animal that exists on mere grasses, still roams the prairies after millennium, adjusts its wardrobe to the season, and thrills visitors from around the world. That’s a remarkable animal.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photographs by Athena Alexander.

Lamar Valley bison, Yellowstone NP

 

Chocolate bison — molded chocolate dessert from Jackson Lake Lodge

 

A map of Yellowstone's elevation, rivers and major lakes, park and state boundaries, the breeding and fall-winter ranges of bison, and the 2013 Interagency Bison Management Plan area

Yellowstone bison range, courtesy Nat’l Park Service. Light tan is fall-winter range, brown is breeding range, purple is Bison Mgmt Plan area. Blue is lakes.